On May 1st, visitors to Busch Gardens Williamsburg were treated to the grand opening of a new thrill ride called Curse of DarKastle that takes passengers on a sleigh ride through a haunted Bavarian castle stuck in a time warp. The eight-passenger “sleighs” travel along 1000' of track through 11 eerie chambers and take guests up, down, and all around in a harrowing experience that will leave even the most hardy thrill seeker wondering if he will make it out alive.

Located in the park's Oktoberfest, Germany section, the five-minute ride (including a pre-show) includes death-defying drops, fog, shattering ice, fire, and a host of ghouls in a 40,000 sq.ft. space designed by Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets, Inc., St, Louis, MO (architects); Falcons Treehouse, Winder-mere, FL (attraction designer); The Nassal Company, Orlando, FL (theming); Oceaneering, Orlando, FL (ride components); and Super 78, Hollywood, CA (computer-generated media). The Orlando office of Electrosonic was responsible for the dozen projections used throughout the ride, nine of which are three dimensional, as well as the audio. Norm Schwab of Lightswitch designed the attraction's lighting.

A far cry from the boat rides with animatronic characters in amusement parks of yore, Curse of DarKastle uses the latest in audio, lighting, and projection technology to scare the living daylights out of guests. “The technology that exists in the theme park industry today makes Curse of DarKastle possible; we couldn't have achieved this three to five years ago,” says Larry Giles, vice president of design and engineering for Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. “Curse of DarKastle is exactly what our guests have been waiting for — a frightening coaster-like ride where you actually believe you might not make it out. The combination of computer-generated graphic imagery and digital projection systems enable every passenger to feel like they have the best seat on the ride.”


The design standard was very high for DarKastle, according to creative director Cecil Magpuri of Falcons Treehouse. “We wanted to create an experience unlike anything else,” he says. “We went through different design efforts using different technologies and ultimately came up with a dark ride experience that uses projections and theatrical lighting along with a lot of immersive scenery so that the transitions from the real world to the digital world and back are as seamless as possible.”

Scene transitions were key for the ride's constant element of suspense. After all, guests are intruding into crazed King Ludwig's castle and he can be quite a feisty apparition. “We created different environments both in the sense of volume and intensity,” Magpuri explains. “We try to create compression and decompression both in volume and theatrics. As we journey through these 11 scenes, we compress the guest, much in the same way Frank Lloyd Wright did by going from a soaring space to a confined space. We go from room volumes that seemed very large and then suddenly switch to a much smaller room.” The guests are acclimated to the ride's large volume before the ride even begins as they approach a large castle absent of color with a unique gray palette that looks like the life has been sucked out of it, according to Magpuri.

During that pre-show experience, the guests are given King Ludwig's back story that involves curses, witches, wolves, and more treachery. As guests first enter the ride, they are engulfed in fog, further emphasizing the castle's frozen state. When Ludwig's name is mentioned, the lights switch to a cold cobalt blue, sending chills down unsuspecting spines. As the guests move through the castle, they go from indoor to outdoor spaces — from grand halls to courtyards — which are all emphasized via the lighting. “The design logic is consistent,” Magpuri says. “We always made sure where the [fake] moon was located in relationship to the castle. The guests won't get that, but it feels right and natural. As the ride progresses, each subsequent window gets a little darker because time has passed. That type of layering of logic was applicable in the media and the lighting.”

Logic also played a role in linking the physical world — scenery, the ride car, the guests, etc. — to the digital world from the various projections created by Electrosonic and Super 78 from nine pairs of Christie 3-chip DLP projectors. However, the type of projector was not a forethought; they were chosen after it was determined what the ride's needs were. “We don't go in with fixed ideas,” says Paul Kent, systems consultant, Electrosonic. “We start with the design team's visual goal and then we work backwards to design an engineered solution that's going to operate for a long period of time and be easily maintained,” he explains. “We work backwards from the required creative intent and then back equipment into it rather than start with using a fixed manufacturer. In some jobs we use multiple projector manufacturers based on requirements laid before us. Theme parks are different; if we're going down one particular path with loudspeakers, amplifiers, projectors, etc., then we will stay with one manufacturer just for ease of specs and client content.”

One of the most daunting aspects about creating DarKastle was that a ride of this nature so heavily dependant on 3D projections had never been done before, according to Kent. “As far as I'm aware this is the first all-digitally projected 3D dark ride,” he says, adding that it is always challenging to match vehicle transition through the scene to the projected content. “In 3D it's even more of a problem because you have to keep vanishing points relative to car speed. You develop a control system interface between the ride control, which keeps people safe on the track, and what we physically need for replaying show media and effects. We know where the cars are on the track so we get the triggers to start audio, video, and lighting effects at the appropriate point around the ride.”

The 3D component proves to be a challenge in and of itself because of the relatively quick re-set time. These are not the 3D movies of yesteryear with the green and red glasses; this 3D is literally all encompassing and surrounds the guests. There are technical challenges just in syncing hard disc players — Electrosonic MS9200P HD players with HDSDI digital output — together. For 3D movies in a traditional theatre, the projectionist has at least 10 minutes to reload and recue the projectors. “In a dark ride you have tolerances of about a second between cars arriving,” Kent says. “That in itself has some issues in syncing up hard drive sources so they are locked together for playback. You can't even be a frame off with 3D because it just doesn't work anymore. If you're out by half a frame, you get a strobing effect, which is very hard on the eyes.”

The 3D is also vital to extend the scenic work so that the scenes blend to the edges of the projections and make a transparent transition into a deeper world, Kent says. “You're looking into rooms and a lot of the 3D is set behind the screen line (like a stage's proscenium) to give you a deeper depth so you get another point of coordination between scenic guys painting and blending scenery to match projected colors. The screen sizes are pushing the boundaries of current projection resolution. Normally, this size is used for film.” The biggest screens used in DarKastle are in excess of 30' wide.

Another unique aspect of the projections is the fact that there is a combination of both front and rear projected images. Rear projections were ideal where space for equipment was somewhat restricted therefore the ride car could get close to the screen without interfering with the image. “The closer the ride vehicle is to the screen, the more it needs to be rear projected to stop any interference in the projection cone,” Kent says. “In rear projection scenes, you can touch the screen because you're not going to cast a shadow.” Christie S9 projectors were used the most, along with some CP2000s, which are digital cinema projectors just like in movie theatres.


Lighting designer Norm Schwab had the meticulous task of matching the lighting in the environment with the lighting in the projections. “The main challenges of the ride were the integration and interaction between the 3D scenery and the 3D projection, all the challenges that came with both matching it in terms of color, brightness, movement, effects, tracking, and getting a lightplot in before the media finished, and giving yourself enough avenues and angles in order to experiment and change as the media changed,” he says.

And boy how it changed! Super 78 developed the media — the projected content — from an architectural standpoint at first so that it could match the “hard” scenery put in front of the projections. “They would start to light [the projections] but I could only light it from certain directions because of where the catwalks are,” Schwab explains. “They would then start to choose angles of the lighting in the media based on what I can do in the real world. They would have a practical and we would make sure that our light in the scenery looked like it was thrown from the light in the media.” While the media designers at Super 78 could use the entire color palette, Schwab was limited to gels, dichroics, and, of course, budget, so the LD and the media designers would try to find a happy medium. “They were good at changing once we knew our limitations since the software was easily changeable,” he adds.

Since the setting for the ride is a castle, most of the lighting effects emanated from fire so Schwab had to carefully choose his sources. However, the castle was frozen in time, especially when the ghost of King Ludwig shows up, so that meant a color change. “We had the fire then turn cold and chilly, with LED Special Effects, a Sacramento-based company that created these really great dual-color LED flicker candles that would have amber LED flickering and a cold blue flickering. Through DMX we could do a really interesting cross fade when a ghost would enter the room,” Schwab explains. “And we did a lot of wolf statues throughout the ride. Whenever a ghost enters, wolf eyes start to glow with LEDs.”

LEDs became a vital source for King Ludwig's haunted crib, especially windows where the space for lighting equipment was limited. Looking into the castle, the light resembled amber candlelight; looking out of the castle the color was reminiscent of a moonlit night. “There was very little room and we didn't want to build big light boxes or have wires stanched to the light, so we built custom LED strip lights that would have dual colors,” Schwab says. “We didn't fade them back and forth, but we did them in two colors so we could mix the right color; for the blue we had a saturated blue with light blue mix and for amber we had yellow mixed with warm white so we could blend a really nice color with DMX.” Aside from using up very little space, the LEDs also saved money on maintenance and energy.

According to Schwab, a lot of the scenes were lit in a relatively theatrical mode with ETC Source Fours® for patterns as well as a lot of PARs. “In some cases when we had low ceilings, we used a really interesting Selecon [Beam Shapers] MR-16 ellipsoidal fixture both in recessed and regular version. It's very high end and the shutters are gorgeous; it's a really great fixture,” he says, adding that the lighting was fairly low-tech since the ride had a modest budget. “We wanted to make it pretty easy on them in terms of maintenance so we used a lot of LEDs. We didn't go with any lights with moving parts or any automated fixtures because we tried spend their money wisely. You only see the scenes for 15 or 20 seconds so you have to make an impression very fast, and very simply.”

Schwab is impressed with the leaps and bounds LED technology has taken over the last few years. “LEDs are starting to go beyond a specialty, as there's enough products that you can almost light whole productions with them,” he says. “Certainly there's no pattern projector yet that I would use, but in terms of washes, coves, and effects, they're perfect. And for rides they're the ultimate in terms of not needing to change gels, or maintenance, because they won't burn out.” The original specification for energy use was 800,000W but was lowered to only 150,000W “so we were able to save them a lot of money by just going with lower level LED sources,” he adds.

Assisting Schwab were Lightswitch's Kelly Roberson, Brad Malkus, and Adam Rechner. Warren Kong helped with installation and Brian Evans programmed the lights on an Entertainment Technology Horizon system, which was a “simple, economic, and compact way to program on the laptop,” Schwab says. “We had wireless throughout the ride so we just carried the laptop around and programmed because there was no room for a real console. It was great to be able to grab the laptop and communicate with the Horizon playback unit via Wi-Fi.”


One of the biggest issues with the sound design for DarKastle was audio bleed; it was imperative to make sure that guests in one scene didn't hear sounds emanating from the next scene before they got there, an age-old problem in attractions of this ilk. Part of the solution was solved architecturally by bringing walls to certain levels and using sound blankets. However, more important was picking the correct tone and the dispersion for the speakers. “We needed to choose the right speakers with the needed spread. We then flew them in the right place in what would look like very strange positions above the ride track but they're there for a specific point source to hit the right car at a particular time,” Kent explains. “Rather than blast a lot of audio at hard floors, we're very specific as to where we hit the ride car. We're working with a tight beam with tight focus.”

Audio replay came from a mixture of sources derived from the HD players' SPDIF digital audio outputs and the onboard sound within the car. The off board sound is fed through a Peavey Media Matrix EQ and distributed by QSC amps to 51 Klipsch CA8T speakers augmented with JBL sub bass loudspeakers through the ride path. The onboard sound is carried in via Electrosonic MP3 solid-state digital players on four channels per vehicle requiring a total of 30 players.

Kent says that focusing the sound for DarKastle was very much the same methods used when focusing speakers in an auditorium, “you just twist it around another way,” he says. “Audio is always focusable, but you always get bounce. Part of the process is to put it where it's required and keep it away from where it's not. Sound doors between every area would've been hugely expensive but the storyline didn't call for it. So being more specific with placement of loud speakers is a much better way to do it.”

As guests escape from the clutches of the ghost of King Ludwig and exit DarKastle, they have no idea how much technology was used in this haunted house for the new millennium. Magpuri was exceedingly pleased with the end result as well. “Like with any project, you start off with a palette of elements and you convince yourself that it's good,” he says. “And it's been so rewarding that the end result is exactly what we hoped it would be. I was almost in tears the first time I rode it.”

Hopefully, tears of fear.